The largest annual gathering of the Canadian conservative movement has come to a close and, for the second time in three years, I had the pleasure of joining in.
Here are a few thoughts hastily written as I ride the train back to Toronto.
State of the movement
This year’s conference was the first to take place in a political context without the Conservative Party in government.
While delegates certainly didn’t give off an aura of defeat or surrender, attendance appeared to be much smaller than the last time I visited (in 2014). If their recent electoral defeat has wrought any particular change among Canadian conservatives, it’s something besides an ideological one: Participants at all of the panels and sessions I attended seemed to have full confidence in the rectitude of their ideas and philosophy and, with only a few exceptions, intra ideological debate was visibly less than at the last incarnation of the conference I attended.
Instead, the conservative movement appears preoccupied with aesthetic and logistical issues. Over and over again during panels and their accompanying Q and As I heard variations of the following: “How do we communicate better?”, “How can we articulate a conservative message to people who don’t identify as conservatives?”, “How do we relate better to young people/journalists?”. There was an overwhelming sense that the Conservative Party fought the election on the basis of more or less the correct ideas, but failed to communicate them adequately.
Though the ghost of Stephen Harper – who remains the first and only leader of the united Conservative Party – looms over the movement, both his legacy and the challenges that follow from his defeat were repeatedly discussed in cloaked and evasive terms. His name was very rarely mentioned (often substituted for “our government”).
While no one ascribed blame to Harper for it, there appeared to be an overriding sense that the true motivations and aspirations of conservatism had been buried; that the party had overwhelmed the movement, become insular, and excluded potential members and activists.
All the familiar themes were present – “Personal responsibility”, related emphases on security and order; the entrepreneurial narrative and its accompanying condemnations of the state as an economic oppressor, etc. – but they emerged in a less guarded fashion than they might have during a meeting of the now deceased Harper cabinet.
Having said this, the conference’s preoccupation with the cosmetics of conservatism (rather than the ideology or philosophy of conservatism) seems to me a symptom of confusion and atrophy rather than renewal.
The path to the conservative utopia does not run through more effective use of Facebook or Twitter, or a more effective application of modern campaign techniques. An interest in value-neutral political technology may be necessary for the success of any ideological project. But, when it starts to override intellectual and spiritual introspection and debate, the movement clearly has a problem.
The view from stage left
As a left wing observer at the conference, it was a real treat to listen to my ideological opposites reflecting on their politics and the state of their movement. The right’s frustration with the status quo and its desire to produce transformative change are qualities I admire, at least in the abstract. The maintenance and nourishment of a movement takes considerable labour, as does the pursuit of ideas which run contrary to apolitical wasteland of late capitalism.
But neither my admiration or agreement survive beyond this abstract terrain. The conservative movement’s historical sense is anemic and its political-economic analysis even worse.
Its continued sense of victimization and marginalization is unwarranted, given that we’re currently living in the world the new right of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s created: conservatism may need to retain this psychological outlook to remain viable, but it lacks historical perspective and fails to take into account the near-ubiquitous triumph of neoliberalism as the ideological spirit of the times.
Movement conservatism also misinterprets and misunderstands its political opponents. “The left” and “liberalism” are repeatedly conflated (sometimes under the nonspecific umbrella term “progressive”). There seems virtually zero awareness of the difference between liberalism and social democracy, let alone anything to the left of the latter. The bogeymen du jour are messieur Trudeau and madame Wynne (Tony Clement referred to Ontario under the Liberals as “the People’s Republic of…”), who are taken to be great champions of “activist Big Government” that seek to “tax and spend” (both mortal insults in conservative circles).
Again, a little perspective here might be warranted. The Wynne administration, which certainly postured around the motif of “activist government” during the 2014 provincial election, just commenced the privatization of Hydro One, having spent its last several mandates repeatedly slashing the corporate tax rate. It may pursue social initiatives like sex ed that offend the sensibilities of the social conservative fringe, but its claims to even lean slightly to the left are shoddy at best.
Ditto for Canada’s new prime minister. His proposition, outside of a deceptively shallow emphasis on “tone”, is essentially to restore some of the programs cut under the previous Conservative government. There is nothing remotely radical about his tax plan, which has already cut taxes for most of the richest 10% of earners (it raised them slightly for the very richest, with a net loss in revenue for the federal government) and does nothing to reverse the repeated cuts to corporate taxes which took place under Stephen Harper (during the campaign, Trudeau even derided the NDP plan to raise the CIT as anti-business). His program for deficit spending is nowhere near the one undertaken by the Conservatives themselves in scale and is quite explicitly branded as an economically-necessary one-off rather than an attempt to increase structural program spending. Finally, his social policy embraces the neoliberal mould of means-testing. During the campaign, Trudeau attacked proposals to create new universal social programs and committed to addressing Canada’s childcare challenges using the same underlying logic as the Conservatives (only with more generous benefits and with the means-testing performed in advance rather than retroactively through the tax system).
That the political centre represented by the Liberals now exists on this terrain is something the right should celebrate as a sign of its ongoing victory. In caricaturing mainstream liberals like Trudeau and Wynne as harbingers of a renewed offensive by “activist government”, movement conservatives are shadow boxing with a chimera of their own creation.
As for the problems with the ideological outlook I observed this weekend, where do we even begin?
Despite retaining the classical conservative emphases on tradition and institutions of social cohesion (the family, nationalism, etc.), the conservative movement born of the 70s new right is overwhelmingly guided by a romantic obsession with the capitalist marketplace. In many important respects, it views this as the single most crucial foundation for both individual and social life – an essentially neutral sphere in which individuals can pursue their personally-crafted life goals without external interference.
If there are imperfections, it is assumed these are the products of meddling or rigging by the state rather than defects inherent by design. There is virtually no problem – poverty, homelessness, unemployment, social anomie – for which the movement conservative does not have a market solution (accompanied by a diagnosis which places blame on an overly activist state). That the market is a structure of power like any other – with intrinsic hierarchies and imbalances that only harden over time and render the ethical goal of meritocracy an impossible one – is simply not accounted for or acknowledged. It is conceived of as a natural equilibrium: as politically and axiologically neutral as evolutionary biology or the force of gravity – not a human construction that is the product of specific historical and economic circumstances, and certainly not an amalgam of institutions that should be subject to democratic change, adjustment, or wholesale replacement when signs of failure appear.
The very notion that there might be valuable moral principles outside of individual economic calculus that should govern our political, economic, and social lives is pure anathema.
Party and movement: Looking ahead
Among the most interesting features of the conference were two related panels showcasing prospective candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party. Here are a few thoughts on each of them:
Michael Chong: Chong’s speech was heavy on personal narrative and short on ideology. As many conservatives like to do, he emphasized his family’s own struggle against adversity (as immigrants from Hong Kong in the mid 20th century). Also invoking family experience, Chong spoke of Canadian heroism in the Pacific during the Second World War (his dad was in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion) as a jumping off point to a familiar and Harperesque story about the need for decisiveness in a dangerous world. Not without a certain rhetorical appeal, but overly polished and personal for a politician regarded to have intellectual substance.
Kevin O’Leary: Whether O’Leary’s musings about running for the CPC leadership represent empty posturing, performance art, or genuine testing of the waters I do not know. His abrasive, bloviating speech was big on pro-business and energy (that is, oil) rhetoric of the kind favoured by the crowed and was well-received enough, but mostly hard to take seriously.
Maxime Bernier: By far the best of the five speeches, Bernier’s was heavy on ideology as well as rhetorical flourish. His attack on government subsidies to corporations got raucous applause and, in the subsequent Q and A, he answered Preston Manning’s policy questions with notable specificity. When Bernier runs, his apparently insurgent candidacy will be interesting to watch.
Tony Clement: Clement’s Instagram follower count probably dwarfs the crowd that heard his speech. Though he chose not to fixate on his personal story as some other candidates did, it was hard to extract a thesis from his remarks. A call for the privatization of the CBC and some mild criticism of the way the party conducted the 2015 election were the only real highlights of the speech.
Lisa Raitt: The only woman to speak (Kellie Leitch had been scheduled but cancelled last minute) Raitt focused on her youth on Cape Breton Island and, like Chong, her family’s various struggles. Beyond a few notes of traditional Toryism, it is unclear what exactly her campaign will be.
In the Q and A that followed each speech, Preston Manning asked each candidate the same question about how to make conservatism appeal to youth. Revealingly, each gave a variation of the same answer: The key to attracting the next generation is for conservatism to be more obviously and outwardly conservative: In his answer, for example, Tony Clement suggested that young people, like conservatives, are “lovers of freedom”.
This apparently banal comment may reveal more than initially meets the eye.
It occurs to me that each and every one of the prospective candidates for the leadership of the CPC came politically of age at around the same time in the 1980s or early 1990s, i.e. during the ascendency of movement conservatism. Then, its calls for “self-sufficiency”, “personal responsibility”, and “individual liberty” over and against the state had an emotional and spiritual resonance that often transcended lines of gender, race, and class. But the lived experience of today’s young people is quite different from those who consider themselves children of the Reagan revolution.
In an economic context characterized by precarious work, low wages, poor financial security, and the widespread exploitation of young labour by employers (who are often from a different generation) across the workforce, solutions that emphasize personal grist and the imperative of an improved work ethic are unlikely to be well-received.
Looking south, it is quite the opposite: Young people appear drawn in much greater measure to Bernie Sanders’ message, and its various attacks on oppressive economic structures, than to movement conservatism’s pickled ethos of “individual liberty” or its various ideological stepchildren (including the Clintonite variant).
Movement conservatism may have dominated the past three decades. But everything I’ve observed this weekend suggests the possibility that something very different may come to dominate the near future.